LeBron James Delivered Ed O’Bannon an Unexpected Assist in His NIL Rights Fight Against the NCAA

July 1 was a gigantic day for former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon. A legal fight O’Bannon started a dozen years ago showed results for the first time. And college athletes took advantage by signing all sorts of deals for the right to use their name, image, and likeness (NIL). And O’Bannon said he got support from an unlikely source: LeBron James.

James never played collegiate sports, so he never had to experience what O’Bannon did regarding people all around him profiting off what he did. That all came with the caveat that O’Bannon wasn’t allowed to profit off himself while leading the Bruins to their first national championship since the John Wooden era.

Yes, the frenzy of NIL deals struck by college athletes resulted from Ed O’Bannon standing up for what he believed was right.

The first wave of NIL deals

Leading up to July 1, the NCAA faced a time crunch. Several states enacted laws that would take effect that day, allowing collegiate athletes in their states to profit from NIL rights. Late in the process, the NCAA issued guidelines to schools in states that do not have legislation on the books. The loose framework? Set up rules at individual schools to prevent pay-for-play agreements and payments used as recruiting tools.

It took a long time for Ed O’Bannon to get his day in court, but the college athletes of today benefit from that battle. Several athletes signed licensing agreements, endorsement deals, and other business arrangements derived from their identity as athletes. Twin sisters Hanna and Haley Cavinder from Fresno State’s women’s basketball program were among the first to take advantage. They signed with Boost Mobile shortly after midnight on July 1, per ESPN.

Arkansas wide receiver Trey Knox has an agreement with PetSmart along with his dog, Blue. And it hasn’t been limited to the so-called revenue sports. Nebraska volleyball player Lexi Sun is selling branded sweatshirts. A Lincoln restaurant chain offered a flat fee to the first 100 Nebraska athletes to promote the restaurant on their social media accounts.

An Atlanta-based firm already has 42 athletes in several sports from 10 schools under contract. It’s the door Ed O’Bannon opened. So how does LeBron James figure into all of this?

An invitation for Ed O’Bannon to appear on LeBron James’ show

Ed O’Bannon told the Los Angeles Times his first contact with LeBron James came through third parties.

“LeBron James didn’t call me directly, but as they say in Hollywood, his people called my people. So my wife and I drove out to Los Angeles. I had been a fan of his show and had watched The Shop a number of times prior to going on. I was familiar with how it works, and I knew that Gov. Gavin Newsom was going to be a part of it.

“My goodness, it was an absolute blast, an honor, something I will never forget. Someone of LeBron’s ilk and prestige to reach out to me? I hadn’t been on that big of a stage in a long, long time.”

Ed O’Bannon

O’Bannon credited James for helping the effects of the verdict against the NCAA come to fruition.

“Once he voiced his opinion about the lawsuit and the whole situation, it was a turning point. He didn’t have to because he had nothing to do with college, went directly from high school to the NBA. My face was on this issue, but he put a more familiar face and obviously a bigger name to the situation. The fact he lent himself to what we were trying to accomplish.”

Ed O’Bannon

It was a fight that began when Ed O’Bannon saw himself in a video game.

Ed O’Bannon never consented to be in an NCAA basketball video game

Ed O'Bannon got an assist in his NIL fight with the NCAA from LeBron James.
Ed O’Bannon helped UCLA to a national championship in 1995. When he saw a friend’s son playing a college basketball video game and recognized himself, O’Bannon launched a legal fight against the NCAA. Along the way, he got a push from LeBron James. | Photo by Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

The fight Ed O’Bannon waged against the NCAA began at a friend’s house. His friend’s son was playing a video game and what O’Bannon saw was himself and other players from the 1995 NCAA champion UCLA team. Per CNN, it’s what his friend said that concerned him.

“And then [my friend] told me he paid X amount of dollars for it, and I didn’t get a penny. And that’s when it really hit me. The rest is history.”

Ed O’Bannon

When O’Bannon received a scholarship at UCLA, a requirement was signing a waiver relinquishing any rights to make money off his image as a college athlete. The courts eventually found the NCAA was guilty of violating anti-trust law. That opened the door for the new age of players having the ability to benefit from their identity.

Ed O’Bannon started the fight. LeBron James gave it a push. But how was a profiteering system that prohibits kids from benefiting from their identity rights allowed to last so long? The flaws in the NCAA’s amateurism model keep getting exposed. But the old ways will die hard.

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